All signs point to 2014 being a milestone year for the Workhouse Arts Center at Lorton. The five-year-old Workshouse, which has struggled with various financial challenges and other barriers to growing it into a major regional attraction, is set to take an important step.
According to John Mason, president and CEO of the nonprofit Lorton Arts Foundation, Inc., which operates the Workhouse, as of July 2014 the $750,000 annual operating subsidy that the center has been receiving from Fairfax County will no longer be needed.
“We are nearing self-sufficiency on the operational side,” said Mason, former chairman of the board of the Arts Council of Fairfax County, who joined the Workhouse in early 2011 at an age when many are long retired.
For his efforts with the Workhouse and Fairfax County’s arts community, Mason is the Fairfax County Times’ 2013 Citizen of the Year.
Originally signing up for a six-month interim stint, almost three years later the indefatigable Mason, 78, a longtime champion of the arts in Fairfax County, says he is still enjoying the challenge of creating a plan for the Workhouse that “will allow financial stability going forward.”
A major readaptive use of what was once part of the Lorton Correctional Complex, the Workhouse Arts Center’s 55-acre campus, which opened to the public in September 2008, currently consists of six artist studio buildings, the main galleries, a Youth Arts Center and W-3 Theatre, Art of Movement building and new tenant the Metropolitan School of the Arts, which offers mostly dance.
It supports about 100 diverse professional and emerging artists — selected by jurying — by providing affordable studios and gallery space, where visitors are encouraged to interact directly with the artists.
Current studio occupancy is running at about 85 to 90 percent. Besides studio rental fees, the Workhouse receives a commission of 30 percent on whatever an artist sells on the arts center campus.
In addition, its Education Department, a growing area, offers more than 150 classes and workshops each quarter, in a broad spectrum of visual and performing art disciplines.
What Mason himself specifically brings to the Workhouse’s challenges is an exceptional confluence of diverse skills and experience.
For Joseph Wallen, 45, the Workhouse’s director of performing arts, among Mason’s chief contributions has been to give the arts center a “stronger framework of organization.”
A member of the Workhouse staff almost from its beginnings, Wallen, a Prince William resident, said, “Layering a business-centric approach over an arts organization is a challenge, as the nature of the arts is to resist being fit into a structure. Through John’s leadership we have been able to apply lessons from both the business world and the arts world to create a better path for the future.”
“Wow,” was the instant reaction of Linda Sullivan, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Fairfax County since 2010, when told about the status of the Workhouse’s county subsidy.
Not surprised, however, she recalled that when Mason, who remains a member of the Arts Council’s board, took over Workhouse’s leadership, he “jumped right in there and immediately grasped its essence and needs … and made it work operationally as well as anyone could.”
Someone with a broad vision concerning the county’s arts and cultural offerings and how they contribute to the county’s quality of life, Mason, she suggested, is “a big bundle of goodwill … an exemplary citizen, smart and giving … and able to work on the big macro level as well as the micro, minutiae level.”
Mayor of the City of Fairfax between 1990-2002, where he continues to live with his wife of 50 years, Mason is founder and president of the 28-year-old Fairfax Spotlight on the Arts Inc., an annual collaborative arts festival put on by the city and George Mason University.
A past president and current board member of the Fairfax Symphony, he was the recipient of its 1993 Pyramid Award as a “local civic leader who contributed to [its] success.” In addition to the Arts Council, which he chaired between 2008 and 2009, he also serves on the board of the Arts at Mason Partnership. In addition, he is the 2004 recipient of the Council’s prestigious Jinx Hazel Arts Citizen of the Year Award.
Mason’s long association with the arts in Fairfax County is undergirded by a wealth of pragmatic business and civic experiences.
A career Army officer, retiring as a colonel, he went on to a successful 30-year career as a vice-president at SAIC (Science Application International Corporation), where he focused on regional transportation policy.
Mason also has served on the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (chairman in 2001), Transportation Coordinating Council of Northern Virginia (as vice-chairman for a decade), the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (chairman in 1993), and the Virginia Municipal League Transportation Committee.
Nationally, when mayor, he was chairman of the board of directors of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (chairman in 2000). In 2004, he was a member of the Governor’s Commission on Rail Enhancement for the 21st Century, and in 2010, he was a member of the Greater Washington Board of Trade-Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments’ review of the governance of the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
He currently is using his transportation expertise as the interim executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
The father of four adult children and grandfather of four, Mason, an Eagle Scout himself, also currently is a vice president on the National Capital Area Council, Boy Scouts of America, executive board. He is the recipient of the Boy Scout District Award of Merit and the Silver Beaver Award in recognition of his volunteer leadership in Scouting as well as the National Eagle Scout Association Outstanding Eagle Scout Award.
Sitting comfortably in his spacious, light-filled office on the Workhouse campus, Mason reflected that over time, he has recognized “the importance of having volunteer engagement to make things happen.”
He added that he has become a firm believer that, like himself, “you don’t have to be talented in an artistic way to contribute to the arts.”
Fairfax City’s Spotlight on the Arts, for example, started as just a small weekend event in the spring with the mission of enhancing the community’s awareness of the many arts and cultural opportunities in Fairfax.
He recalled that at the time, The Washington Post didn’t cover what happened in Fairfax. “For The Post, civilization ended in Arlington.”
Founded in 1985, even before GMU’s Center for the Arts was built, Spotlight has grown to three weeks and features more than 40 Fairfax-area events that showcase local performance and visual artists. In 1997, it also added four endowed scholarships for music, theater and visual arts students.
Living walking distance to Fairfax High School where the Fairfax Symphony regularly performed made it a natural to volunteer there, Mason said. Around the same time, he was invited to join the Arts Council Board to help develop its five-year strategic planning initiative.
While simultaneously doing all this, along came the opportunity at the Workhouse.
“I look at what we do from the realities of a business context,” Mason said, attributing the Workhouse’s current positive direction, in general, to two simple efforts—increased funding raising and “very prudent” spending, including staff reductions of about four or five positions.
A key element in making these strides possible, he suggested, is the “maturing” of the Lorton Arts Foundation board of directors. Mason said, “I use the word ‘maturing’ often. We are a young nonprofit, a young organization. The maturation rate is quite impressive to say in our sixth year we’re [near] self-sustaining,”
He added, “I enjoy the challenge, and I’m blessed with a wonderful board and staff.
Mason has his eyes fixed firmly on the Workhouse’s future, too. Going forward, he would not only like to maintain and grow programs and attendance but he also hopes to develop a monetary reserve and move toward actualizing already planned capital improvements.
Among these future plans are building a 900-person Event Center, a 1000-seat amphitheater and a 300-seat Workhouse Theater.
Mason hopes these additions will contribute to making the Workhouse a major regional draw. An Urban Land Institute technical assistance report, done in 2012, noted that as yet “neither the Workhouse Arts Center nor Lorton are known as significant destinations in the D.C. region.” Plus, the Workhouse must compete with a number of other national attractions and better known regional ones.
“Don’t ask me yet how we’ll fix that, but we’re coming along fine,” Mason said confidently, suggesting that the multiple opportunities the Workhouse offers for the public to directly interact with artists and engage in the arts themselves gives it a unique regional niche.
“When you talk about the range of arts, we have it all,” he enthused.
Wallen shares Mason’s optimism, noting that audiences for the Workhouse’s performing arts offerings have been building with some recent events selling out.
Bolstered by the “stronger structure” created by Mason, Wallen said, “I feel my department is just getting started. I see a lot to come in the future.”
If anyone can make things happen at the Workhouse, it will be Mason, said Sullivan, noting he was the prime mover in her becoming the Arts Council’s president and CEO after the death of her predecessor, Ann Rodriguez.
Describing Mason as a “great advisor and mentor,” she credited his leadership as chairman with transforming the Arts Council from an organization that was a mixture of service and presentation to a pure service organization that does not compete with the arts organizations that it supports.
The five-year strategic plan that he steered, she said, “helped [the Arts Council] grow up,” and “John was at the cusp of that transition. He’s sort of our patriarch … our institutional memory.”
Also, with Rodriguez, Mason, Sullivan noted, successfully advocated for an amendment on the arts to be added to Fairfax County’s Comprehensive Plan.
Advising the Arts Council on its new five-year strategic planning, too, Sullivan said of Mason, “He’s a real driver and so politically astute. He’s made sure that the arts are included in the county’s future planning, vision and thinking. … He plays an important role; he’s doing an amazing job.”